A province-wide job action by lawyers who provide duty counsel isn’t impacting business at the Port Alberni provincial court, provincial prosecutor Gordon Baines said.
The dispute between the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. and the provincial government who underwrite duty counsel has quietly gone on since January.
This month, those lawyers who chose to do so are refusing to provide duty counsel, association spokesperson Bentley Doyle said. In March, they withdrew services for three weeks. In February it was two weeks and in January, one week.
The job action is affecting up to 50 courthouses across B.C., Doyle said.
The crux of the dispute is the fees lawyers receive for the service. “B.C. pays the lowest amount per capita toward legal aid out of any province in the country,” he said.
The matter has its genesis in 2002 when the province slashed the legal services budget by $16 million. The budget was again cut in 2005 and in 2009, causing a cessation of representation of services for poverty and family law.
In the Alberni Valley, duty counsel is provided at the courthouse on Thursdays and that hasn’t changed. “I don’t think all of the lawyers are going along with it,” Baines said.
An employee with the court registry confirmed that the impact of the job action locally has been minimal.
“We’ve been fortunate that there has not been an impact to the court proceedings,” the employee said. “There haven’t been any issues that we have been made aware of.”
Doyle disputed that there has been duty counsel in Alberni though, saying Legal Services Society records note that there was no duty counsel in Port Alberni in February and March. “But that doesn’t mean that duty counsel wasn’t being made available by phone,” he said.
Lawyers aren’t walking off the job per se, nor are they walking away from clients, but they are refusing to do additional work, Doyle said.
The TLABC advocates for lawyers who provide duty counsel to adults who are facing criminal, civil, immigration or family charges and who don’t have a lawyer. The TLABC represents 95 per cent of all trial lawyers in the province, Doyle said.
In March, Attorney General Shirley Bond announced that her ministry was boosting annual legal aid funding by $2.1 million.
The money was to assist families with custody or access issues, as well as to provide representation for parents with children in the custody of the Ministry of Children and Family Development.